Television Haydn Keenan takes Justin Burke inside the world of ASIO surveillance
A documentary series explores ASIO’s obsession with suppressing dissent
DOCUMENTARY-MAKER Haydn Keenan was never one to be paranoid about spies snooping on his daily life. But creating a four-part documentary series based on ASIO’s files has changed his thinking. ‘‘ I have had an alteration in my psyche. I can be walking down Bourke Street in Melbourne or in [Sydney’s] Kings Cross, and the ASIO surveillance footage will start to flash back to me,’’ he says.
‘‘ There is a bit of post-traumatic stress ... but even now it’s finished, I occasionally go back into the cutting room and watch the footage for half an hour. It’s fascinating.’’
The first episode of Keenan’s series Persons of Interest screens on SBS on Tuesday. It features a narration of excerpts from ASIO files Keenan reviewed at the National Archives in Canberra, along with interviews with the people who were spied on and, in a few cases, the former spies themselves.
ASIO was formed in March 1949, primarily to counter foreign communist influence. But what began with surveillance of Communist Party of Australia members eventually led to actors, journalists, indigenous people and protesters at demonstrations being caught in the intelligence dragnet.
In the final report to his first royal commission into intelligence and security, conducted between 1974 and 1976, NSW Supreme Court justice Robert Hope concluded ASIO had become far too focused on counter-subversion activities at the expense of espionage investigations proper. According to Keenan, about 500,000 individuals were the subjects of ASIO files.
Keenan seeks to uncover insights not only into Australian social and political history but also into the personal histories of the Australians who came under surveillance. And he experienced a wide range of reactions from those he approached to participate in the documentary series.
‘‘ A surprising number refused to appear because they feared what was in their files. One of them said, ‘ I run a $500 million superannuation fund, I do not need this: go away, go away!’
‘‘ But for others, like [former president of the NSW legislative council] Meredith Burgmann, it is a plus . . . it confirms their activism. The worst thing for a former activist would be if you went to look for your file and they say you haven’t got one,’’ he says. ‘‘ After this show goes to air, I expect a lot of file envy.’’
Keenan’s vision for the series narrator was a female equivalent of HAL 9000, the sentient computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
‘‘ It’s quiet, threatening, dispassionate and invasive. The entries are written by an author who neither likes nor trusts her subject, and whatever her subject does proves the quiet hypothesis that the author has always had,’’ he says. ‘‘ If they speak too much, they are trying to hide something. If they don’t speak enough, they are trying to hide something.’’
The conceit of the documentary is allowing the subjects to confront the formerly secret information in their ASIO files. In some cases, they include personal evaluations that — decades later — prove intensely hurtful.
Roger Milliss, the subject of the first episode, was a communist party member, as was his father Bruce, a political campaign manager for Ben Chifley and one-time candidate for Labor Party preselection.
Milliss the son is shown reading an entry in his file remarking on his personality at a time when he was associated with Sydney’s leftwing New Theatre. ‘‘ I couldn’t warm to him if he burst into flames,’’ he reads. He is reduced to responding: ‘‘ Ouch, ouch ouch.’’
The files sometimes reveal intensely private matters, such as Milliss’s wife, Suse, discussing a potential abortion on the phone.
‘‘ Isn’t it terrible that someone was listening to that phone conversation about something so personal,’’ she says. ‘‘ It’s smutty, isn’t it, eavesdropping on people’s private talks.’’
According to Keenan, ASIO’s files also reveal examples of the intelligence organisation’s hidden hand in events, such as Suse’s failure to secure employment at the ABC.
‘‘ Suse thought she was too dumb and couldn’t understand why she couldn’t get a job,’’ he says. ‘‘ She didn’t know ASIO was going over to Gore Hill [ABC television’s former Sydney headquarters] to make sure she didn’t get a job as a typist.’’
For some subjects confronted by their files, the minute detail illuminates events and people long forgotten. In other cases, it raises old accusations by ASIO that the subjects continue to dispute. Student activist Michael Hyde, indigenous activist Gary Foley and relatives of author Frank Hardy are among those interviewed for the series.
A possible danger inherent in the design of Persons of Interest is the licence it allows the subjects of these files to exonerate themselves. Keenan, however, asserts he is eager to present some nuance.
‘‘ I think almost all the people in our episodes knew that they would be followed, and some said to me, ‘ Yes, they were right to follow us because we were working towards the overthrow of the state.’
‘‘ It is not illegal to call for the overthrow of the state, but it is illegal to attempt it,’’ he continues. ‘‘ As one ASIO officer said to us, it really boils down to whether the surveillance subjects had the capacity. By the 1960s, there were about 2000 communists in Australia, all of whom hated each other. They had almost no capacity whatsoever.
‘‘ The number of man hours spent following around loudmouth kids seems to me to reveal a political agenda on the part of the intelligence services, feeding the threat of communist takeover to its political masters.’’
According to Keenan, another former intelligence officer told him: ‘‘ Forget 007, think bureaucracy.’’
Keenan is amazed at the attitudes of the younger generation of Australians, who are willing to share intimate aspects of their lives and associations on social media.
‘‘ I’m not a great believer in film or art changing people’s lives, but I think as former High Court justice Michael Kirby says in the documentary, a healthy scepticism applied to the politicians and the intelligence services would be a good start.’’
He adds the biggest allies against intelligence abuses are journalists, whistleblowers and incompetence on the part of spies.
But given the recent revelations about the scale of contemporary signals intelligence gathering, as revealed by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, is Keenan optimistic these allies will be sufficient? ‘‘ No,’’ he admits. Keenan says bringing the documentaries to fruition was a rugged process. ‘‘ To be frank, it was a long gestation. But we have got enough for a second and a third series.’’
Given the controversial nature of Persons of Interest, he is anticipating a range of reactions — especially from those who were involved in, or recall, the events depicted.
‘‘ I hope I’ve got my backside covered and conservative commentators don’t find too many mistakes to smear me with. But no doubt the Left will say I have trivialised this or that.’’
Persons of Interest, Tuesdays, 8.30pm, SBS One, until January 28.
ASIO took an inordinate interest in the 1960s and 70s protest movement, left; Haydn Keenan, below left; Roger Milliss, below right